Shifting technique has the potential to move you several spots in qualifying or knock you off the podium. While shaving fractions of a second off each upshift can result in improved lap times, smashing through the gears as quickly as possible can damage equipment and cause missed shifts. In a heated battle, missing a shift means losing a position or more. Assuming there are no mechanical issues — worn throw-out bearing, syncros, return springs, etc.— quick, smooth and precise shifting comes down to technique: rapid clutch engagement, rev matching when downshifting and guiding the shift lever precisely into the next gear.
The primary mistake drivers make is gripping the shift lever with all their strength. Transmissions have locating features designed into them. Muscling the shifter can bypass these features, which leads to missing gates, damage and poor acceleration. Each gear change has a particular technique for optimal shifting. Each hand position and movement provides maximum tactile sensitivity while optimizing the control forces to the mechanical movement between gates.
When upshifting to second, fourth and sixth, pull the lever straight back. Straight action requires some effort to overcome the neutral centering spring. Place your palm on the right side of the shifter and wrap your fingers around the front, with contact on the pads of your fingers and palm.
When upshifting to third or fifth, use the meaty part of your palm and wrap your fingers over the top to push the lever away from you. In all cases, it’s best to hold the wrist stable, rotate at the shoulder and elbow and use the fingertips to feel how the lever moves through the gates to synchro and ring engagement.
When downshifting, keep your hand in one position: palm on the right side of the shifter with fingers wrapped around the front, thumb on the left side. Going from sixth to fifth is a risky shift so push away from you when shifting to fifth. Going from fifth to fourth is straightforward as the lever returns to the central position while pulling the gear toward you.
Shifting from fifth to second is a common mistake — and can be expensive — so move smoothly to fourth. Shifting from fourth to third requires straight action and the neutral return spring helps keep the lever in line. Shifting from third to second is easy because you pull the lever toward you. When shifting toward or alongside the reverse gate be mindful of the gap there and adjust the lever forces accordingly. Heel-toe is not critical, but it improves braking and saves equipment. It is also a topic for a future article.
In any shift, the shift lever is moved to neutral almost immediately as the clutch pedal is depressed. Make sure the selector ring is engaged before releasing the clutch pedal. With practice you will sense the optimal speed without risking damage or missed shifts.
Joshua Allan is a driving coach living in California. A mechanical engineer, Allan has worked in the design offices of Ferrari’s Formula 1 team and has been a vehicle development test driver for Maserati in Italy. He is a five-time champion in a PTD Mazda MX-5 with Robert Davis Racing. Learn more at RacerMentor.com